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British Columbia B.C. teachers set to vote on tentative deal, but strong voices urge rejection

Brentwood Bay Elementary teachers from left to right, Rhayna Archer, Fiona Mosher, Carmen Di Lucca, Jacqueline Jim and Aimee Lampard continue to picket in Brentwood Bay, B.C., September 17, 2014 until after they vote to ratify a tentative settlement recently proposed by the government ending the strike which began back in June.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

After weeks pacing well-worn picket lines, thousands of teachers across British Columbia packed away their signs on Wednesday for what could be the last teachers' strike of the decade.

More than 40,000 teachers will vote Thursday on whether to accept a tentative six-year deal with the province. The agreement, reached between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation early Tuesday morning, remains emotional for many educators, coming after five weeks of cancelled classes and all of summer school lost to one of the longest strikes in years.

While many teachers have seen up to a quarter of their annual salaries disappear due to the labour conflict, a number of strong voices have emerged urging teachers to reject the negotiated contract and continue labour action in the hopes of reaching a better agreement.

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(Connect with our B.C. teachers' strike live blog for the latest updates on the strike.)

"After five weeks of strike and twelve years of legal battles, this is not the deal that will restore sanity to public education," Tara Ehrcke, a Victoria-based teacher, wrote in an online post that was heavily shared on social media.

In calling on teachers to reject the deal, Ms. Ehrcke said the proposed agreement would do little to hire new teachers and end overcrowding in the province's classrooms. Ms. Ehrcke, an executive in Victoria's teachers' association, said only five to 10 new teachers would be hired under the deal in the provincial capital's school district. She was unavailable for an interview.

A court decision in January, 2014, deemed unconstitutional the removal of language from teachers' contracts by then education minister Christy Clark in 2002. Part of that language installed caps on class sizes and set strict limits on class composition. The government has appealed the decision.

According to the B.C. Education Ministry, the average class size in 2014 was below the caps scrapped in 2002. Under Tuesday's deal, the province and BCTF agreed on a $108-million fund to deal with grievances from teachers who feel that class size and composition limits were breached after 2002.

A final decision on who sets those limits – and by extension how many teachers work in B.C. – is expected only after the case is appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

While Troy Hardwick understands why some teachers might want to reject the agreement, the Vancouver-based teacher says he isn't ready to vote for a return to the picket lines.

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"Everyone is flat broke, busted, scared and worried," he said. "The kids need to be back in their seats. We didn't win a lottery here, but it's a deal."

Mr. Hardwick worries that the province's teachers don't have a solid enough relationship with the B.C. government, or enough support from the the public, to risk another strike.

Both sides have claimed a victory in the current contract. Ms. Clark says her government has signed the longest labour deal yet with teachers, ushering in a rare period of labour peace. The 7.25-per-cent salary hike over six years would put the teachers in line with the increases given to much of the public sector.

In a letter to teachers, BCTF president Jim Iker celebrated the lack of concessions made by his union. Along with a fund to settle grievances and a second fund to hire more teachers, the BCTF's members secured improved health benefits and a boost to pay for on-call teachers.

Brianne Melnyk, a learning assistance teacher on Vancouver Island, said she won't make up her mind before she reads the final agreement. But she warned the current agreement "will do little to improve a sad situation," and she pointed at the lack of funding for new teaching positions as a serious problem.

After losing more than a quarter of his salary in the strike, Surrey teacher Jim McMurtry will vote to support the deal, but cautions it was a "pyrrhic victory."

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"My hope is that when we move forward, this will be seen as an absolute disaster. We can never do this again," Mr. McMurtry said. Due to the cancellation of summer school, he says he lost 13 weeks of pay.

The final wording that teachers will be voting on had yet to be posted as of Wednesday evening, as negotiators from the province and the teachers' union continued to labour over back-to-work language. Results of Thursday's vote are not expected before the late evening.

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